ROMEO, MI – Ford Motor Co. says its new ’09 F-150 pickup is for buyers who actually use their trucks for work, and that these customers know there is only one choice for a truck that reliably handles dirty jobs day in and day out.

“There are a lot of competitors, but really no competition,” Mark Fields, Ford president-The Americas, boldly proclaims during a recent F-150 launch event.

Fields might see no rivals, but Ward’s data shows the Chevrolet Silverado outsold the light-duty F-150 in the ’08 model year and has a narrow edge through the first 10 months of the calendar year, so the heat is on Ford if it wants to retain its decades-long truck dominance.

The competition in the truck segment is vicious and growing more desperate as rivals scrap and claw for every buyer in this contracting sector. Through October, large pickup sales are down 26%, according to Ward’s data.

In launching its new pickup, Ford staged two days of driving in southeast Michigan, including back-to-back comparisons against rivals at its proving ground here.

The F-150 outgunned Silverado, Dodge Ram and Toyota Tundra in a series of tests designed to demonstrate towing, off-roading, hauling and durability.

Equipped with a 3-valve 5.4L SOHC V-8, the burly F-150 can tow an impressive 11,300 lbs. (5,126 kg) and haul 3,030 lbs. (1,274 kg) of cargo.

By comparison, the ’09 Silverado 1500 boasts a maximum towing capacity of 10,700 lbs. (4,853 kg) and a maximum payload of 1,909 lbs. (866 kg), while the ’09 Ram 1500 has a payload rating of 1,850 lbs. (839 kg) and can tow 9,100 lbs. (4,128 kg).

A video also shows the F-150 performs admirably through the most brutal tests, including a drive down the Silver Creek test run, a strip of uneven pavement at the Ford proving ground that resembles the surface of the moon.

The test strip is so harsh, engineers are allowed to traverse it only nine times a day, to avoid damage to their internal organs. Journalists didn’t get to drive on Silver Creek.

The test runs make for dramatic footage, but in reality the average buyer is unlikely to experience anything like Silver Creek.

The F-150’s real test is on the open road, where owners will spend most of their time. Whether on a 2-lane highway or a typically rough gravel road, the F-150 is amazingly quiet, due to a healthy dose of sound-damping materials.

The new F-150 might represent the pinnacle of Ford’s engineering expertise. Despite declining sales, the truck remains enormously important to Ford, and its refinement illustrates the auto maker’s commitment to remain the undisputed king of its corral.

The F-150 handles with confidence. The coil-spring rear suspension of the Ram feels slightly more car-like than the F-150, but only if the driver is paying close attention. Most F-150 buyers will be thankful Ford keeps the traditional leaf-spring configuration in the rear.

During the test drive, the F-150’s suspension soaks up even serious bumps on dirt roads, without jostling occupants about.

Steering provides good on-center feel, with the slightest input immediately transferring to the pavement. Ford has taken great pains to refine the ride and handling of the F-150 without sacrificing capability.

Most of our drive time was in the Lariat trim level, two steps below the top model, the new-for-’09 Platinum edition. Decked out in high-quality leather with impressive stitching, the Lariat is not the kind of vehicle found on terrain such as the Silver Creek test bed.

’09 Ford F-150 Lariat SuperCrew
Vehicle type front-engine, 4-wheel drive, 5-passenger pickup
Engine 5.4L SOHC V-8; cast iron/aluminum heads
Power (SAE net) 320 hp @ 5,000 rpm
Torque 390 lb.-ft (529 Nm) @ 3,500 rpm
Compression ratio 9.8:1
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase 157 ins. (399 cm)
Overall length 243.7 ins. (619 cm)
Overall width 78.9 ins. (200 cm)
Overall height 76.4 ins. (194 cm)
Curb weight 5,683 lbs. (2,578 kg)
Base price $39,265 (approx., pre-production model)
Fuel economy 14/18 mpg (17-13 L/100 km)
Competition Dodge Ram, Chevrolet Silverado, Toyota Tundra, Nissan Titan
Pros Cons
More fuel efficient No V-6
Upgraded interior Bland exterior
Extremely capable Diesel must wait

Still, the seats are comfortable and legroom ample. In the back seat, a 6-ft.-2-in. (188-cm) passenger reclines comfortably.

For ’09, Ford has lengthened the flow-through center console some 2 ins. (5 cm), making it large enough to swallow up two laptop computers. Plus, the interior offers 30 storage areas, including a bin on top of the instrument panel and several small cubbies.

The instrument panel also is upgraded with larger buttons and switches that are easier to reach. Overall, the layout is more intuitive than that of the outgoing model.

On the outside, little has changed, although Ford improved aerodynamics. The most noticeable change is the small “lip” on top of the tailgate, a seemingly innocuous feature the auto maker says reduces drag.

With three cab styles, four box options and seven trim levels, the ’09 F-150 boasts 35 different configurations, more than any other fullsize pickup.

Even with recently volatile fuel prices, Ford expects the volume engine to be the 5.4L V-8, which produces a respectable 320 hp and 390 lb.-ft. (529 Nm) of torque. Other powertrain offerings include a 4.6L 3-valve V-8 that churns out 292 hp and 320 lb.-ft. (434 Nm).

The 3-valve 4.6L and 5.4L V-8s are mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission, which improves fuel economy.

The base engine for the ’09 F-150, replacing the available V-6, is a 4.6L 2-valve V-8 that produces 248 hp and 294 lb.-ft. (399 Nm) of torque, paired with a 4-speed automatic.

All the engines offer a combined 1 mpg (0.4 km/L) improvement in fuel economy vs. the outgoing truck, Ford says.

On paper, the 5.4L V-8 lags the 5.7L Hemi offered in the ’09 Dodge Ram, which makes 380 hp and 404 lb.-ft. (548 Nm) torque. But Ford’s 5.4L V-8 is more than adequate for highway driving, without being noisy, even while towing a 7,500-lb. (3,402-kg) trailer.

For consumers demanding better fuel economy, Ford plans to offer an EcoBoost turbocharged, direct-injection gasoline engine in the F-150 in 2010. A planned light-duty diesel has been postponed due to tough economic conditions.

The base F-150 XL regular cab starts at $21,320, including destination and delivery charges. At the top of the range, the Platinum edition sells for $41,415, although Ford has low sales expectations for the model, given the difficult economy.

The new F-150 is Ford’s best pickup yet but faces stiff competition in an alarmingly weak market. The auto maker figures its best hope is to satisfy those who need trucks for work and for towing.

“True truckers, which are the ones driving the market right now, want true capability,” says Frank Davis, executive director-North America product development. “You can’t have a poseur, because true truckers work the vehicles and use them hard.”

The work on the F-150 will pay off if Ford can retain the truck sales crown.

bpope@wardsauto.com